AFF Review: The Donner Party

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The Donner Party

The obvious approach for a film about the Donner Party, one of the most infamous stories of deadly misadventure in American history, would be horror. But in T.J. Martin's The Donner Party, an Austin Film Festival selection, the historic event gets a well deserved dramatic approach that makes it all the more unsettling. 

Like most dramatic retellings, the ultimate end is known, but the journey, quite literally in this case, is more important than the end result. Several groups of pioneers converged to form the Donner Party on the way to California, but after following a "new" route, ended up stranded in the Sierra Nevadas through the winter and spring of 1846.

Martin's screenplay is a thriller focusing on the psychological ordeal of starvation and extreme weather.  The stark beauty of a seemingly tranquil winter forest is countered with the increasing desperation only those on the brink of survival can feel. With dwindling provisions and limited winter gear, a group sets off on a "forlorn hope" (a term usually adopted by soldiers assaulting a well defended position where the chance of survival is slim at best).

The Donner Party centers on two primary conflicts: the wilderness and the party, and William Foster's will against William Eddy's. Crispin Glover plays Foster straight, without the eccentricities for which Glover is renowned. His adversary, William Eddy (Clayne Crawford) is solely focused on his family's survival, and the two men are frequently at odds.  Foster thinks he's the natural leader, but has no wilderness skills; Eddy barely keeps his contempt in check. Charles Stanton (Christian Kane) seems to have ulterior motives, but then, so do most of the characters. Personal conflicts are barely kept in check, and facades slowly start to wear the longer the party goes without provisions. 

The standout performance is by Mark Boone, Jr., playing a man with two daughters in the party.  Boone (Sons of Anarchy, Batman Begins, Memento) is usually typecast as a thug, a drunk, or a combination of the two. But in The Donner Party he is the moral compass of the story, and does it well. In a pivotal moment, with very few words and tight camera work, Boone steals the movie.

During the minimal action in the film, the tension is palpable, as the exhaustion and malnutrition take their toll.  It seems everyone has the eyes of a villain, and is trying to figure out who might turn on the rest. It's an impressive feat considering most of the action is either walking, or sitting around a fire, requiring the actors to emote their desperation with gravitas. The cannibalism is not glorified; everyone conveys a mixture of disgust and desperation in the few scenes where flesh is eaten.

Martin takes liberties creating dramatic tension between members of the party, but otherwise the story is painstakingly accurate. It was filmed at the actual Donner Pass in only 12 days. 

Producer John Moore is now an Austin resident. That makes three Texas connections, as Christian Kane is from Dallas, and Cary Wayne Moore, who plays Jay Fosdick is from Alvin, Texas.

The Donner Party will be released on DVD in January 2010.